- Designers: Michel Matschoss & Alex Randolph
- Publisher: Multiple
- Players: 2 – 6
- Ages: 5 and Up
- Time: 30-60 Minutes
- Times Played: > 5
Sagaland: From 8th Place to 1st Place
Alex Randolph started designing games full time in the early 1960s, and in 1962, 3M commissioned him for their newly-minted board game division. While at 3M Randolph published the board game Twixt, which catapulted him to fame and earned him a Spiel des Jahres nomination in 1979. Sagaland’s co-designer, Michel Matschoss, was the head of 3M’s game division in Germany, but unlike Randolph, he had no game design experience. Matschoss and Randolph met through the company, and in 1974 they agreed to one day design a game together.
That plan would come to fruition in 1978. Randolph heard that Ravensburger was looking for a fairy-tale themed game, and he remembered that Matschoss was knowledgeable of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The duo started designing a race game, and they isolated themselves in Sababurg Castle (a.k.a. the Sleeping Beauty Castle) to work on the project. Over breakfast one morning they abandoned the idea of a pure race game, instead mixing in the mechanic of collecting treasures. They had a prototype four weeks later, which they presented to Ravensburger.
Ravensburger picked up the game and named it Sagaland. According to Sagaland’s SdJ retrospective, the designers were not thrilled with the title, but they loved the artwork, which was done by the same studio as Hare & Tortoise. They decided to proceed, and the game previewed at the International Toy Fair at Nuremberg in 1981.
The game was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres that year, but it ultimately ranked eighth in the jury’s poll and lost to Focus. Sagaland was re-nominated in 1982 due to the small number of new releases that year, and this time it won. The game beat out eight other nominees in 1982, including Alex Randolph’s Ghosts and Sid Sackson’s Can’t Stop. According to the SdJ retrospective, Michel Matschoss was hugely surprised by the win; he himself did not think the game of such caliber.
Sagaland’s win marked the first time a German (Matschoss) won the award, and it ushered in an era of German dominance: German designers would win in 15 of the next 20 years. It was also the first time that co-designers won the award.
Randolph and Matschoss would go on to found the game company Winning Moves. Matschoss never designed and published another game, although he remained active in the industry, serving as CEO of Winning Moves until 2009. Randolph, who passed away in 2004, would receive eleven other SdJ nominations: Twixt (1979), Ghosts! (1982), Claim (1984), Iago (1985), Top Secret (1986), Code 777 (1986), Raj (1988), Die heisse Schlacht am kalten Buffet (1990), Die Verbotene Stadt (1992), Die Osterinsel (1994), and Sisimizi (1996). He also twice won the Kinderspiel des Jahres (in 1989 and 1997) and twice received a special award for “Beautiful Game of the Year” (in 1988 and 1996). Randolph and his friend Sid Sackson (who he worked alongside at 3M) were arguably the most influential American game designers of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.
Fisher Price released an English edition under the name Enchanted Forest in 1982. In 1997 the game received a re-theme as The Wizard of Oz. There have been numerous other printings over the years, and Sagaland and Enchanted Forest are both still in print today. The game has reportedly sold more than 3 million copies.
For more information on the history of Sagaland, I recommend the SdJ’s 25-year retrospective (which, unfortunately, is only available in German). A great overview of the life of Alex Randolph can be found at The Big Game Hunter. Joe Huber once wrote an excellent article highlighting Randolph’s games as part of his German Game Authors Revisited series.
The Gameplay: Roll-and-Move Mixed with a Memory Game
At one end of the game map is the village, and this is where each of the players place their pawns at the start of the game. At the other end is the castle, which contains a space with a key. At the start of the game all thirteen treasure cards are shuffled and placed face-down in the castle, and then the top card is flipped face up. This face up card shows the treasure currently being sought by the king.
Between the village and the castle are various paths, and on these paths are thirteen trees, each of which has a picture of a piece of treasure on the bottom. The pictures of treasure on the thirteen trees correspond to the treasure cards at the castle. The goal of the game is to find (and remember) the location of the treasure currently sought by the king and then travel to the key space at the castle to report its location. If a player correctly reports the location, they take the card for the treasure that was sought, but if they are wrong, they must return their pawn to the village. The first player to collect three cards wins.
Players take turns in clockwise order. Movement occurs via dice rolls. Two six-sided dice are rolled, and then the player decides how to move. Though the two dice are rolled together, each dice is counted separately in determining movement. The player may start with the larger or smaller dice and may, with each dice, move either forward or backward. For a example, a player throwing a 3 and a 5 could move eight total spaces forward or backward, or he could move two spaces forward or backward (by moving five spaces forward and three spaces backward, or vice versa). If a player lands on one of the blue spaces adjacent to a tree, he or she may look at the bottom of the tree, being careful not to show other players. If a player lands on top of another player, that other player is sent back to the village.
In a popular variant, players rolling doubles may use magic, entitling them to either (1) move to any blue space to look at any tree, (2) move to the first stone space after the bridge in the castle area, or (3) change the current treasure card being shown by shuffling all of the treasure cards and revealing a new one. (If the same card turns up again after being shuffled, it remains on top.)
Does it stand the test of time?
Sagaland is today marketed as children’s game, and as far as children’s games go, it is a fine game. My sister teaches elementary school, and Enchanted Forest is a favorite in her classroom. It is easy to see why: the theme appeals to kids, the rules are easy to learn, and the artwork and components are beautiful, even by modern standard. (I vaguely remember enjoying Enchanted Forest as a kid. I believe an elementary school teacher of mine had it, and it is probably the first SdJ winner I ever played.)
That said, I’m afraid the game has almost no appeal to adults, particularly gamers. Like most gamers, I am not a fan of the roll-and-move mechanic, nor am I a fan of memory games, and that’s basically the essence of Sagaland. There are strategic elements, such as noticing the tree your opponents look under right before heading to the castle, but I consider this to be primarily a game of chance. My biggest issue with Sagaland, however, is that it overstays its welcome: it can drag on and on as players either can’t find the right treasure or don’t get the dice rolls they need to land on the right spots. The last game I played last about 50 minutes, but it felt far, far longer.
Other gamers appear to agree with me. Sagaland is currently the lowest-rated SdJ winner on BGG, having an average rating of 5.79 and ranking 3,762. For the sake of comparison, Dampfross (the 1984 winner) is the next lowest, ranking 2,186 and having an average rating of 6.36.
Even setting my issues with the gameplay aside, I think this was a bad pick by the jury on other grounds. Even back in 1981 Sagaland’s central mechanics weren’t that original, and one thing I’ve long admired about the jury is that they reward creativity. The pick might be chalked up to there being a poor crop of games that year, but Sid Sackson’s Can’t Stop – which is still popular today, and which I consider to be one of the finest press-your-luck games ever – was a competing nominee.
Would Sagaland win the SdJ today? Almost certainly not. The game is a bit light, even for the modern SdJ jury. Additionally, the jury seems to now focus on picking games the whole family – and not just the kids – can enjoy. The game might be nominated for the Kinderspiel des Jahres, but I don’t think it would be a serious SdJ contender.
Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers
Patrick Brennan – This has been an evergreen favourite with my kids over the years, partly because of theme, partly because it’s simple, partly for the great bits. In the end, the game is just memory though. We only ever played variations of the kids variants listed in the rules, not having to go to the castle to claim. I’ve played the game proper with adults once or twice, but it didn’t stand up really. Highly recommended for 4-8 year olds though.
Joe Huber (3 plays) – I’ve got a weakness for memory games – I actually like to see memory as an element in games, _particularly_ when it’s not the primary element. Here, it borders on primary too heavily to be a favorite, but I did enjoy the game enough to give it a few plays – all with adults – back in the 1990s. It’s for games such as this that the Kinderspiel des Jahres was created, and where I expect it would be judged today.
Mark Jackson (lots & lots of plays over the years) – Enchanted Forest is an evil combination of Aggravation and a memory game. Stomping on other players is an integral part of the fun!
To succeed at the game you need two basic skills:
- memory – there are 13 trees & you’ll need to remember all of them that you can without getting to pick the order you see them in.
- ability to juggle small numbers – each turn, you get two “turns” – each die is a separate movement. Playing quickly depends on your personal ability to figure out the best possible way to use your die rolls.
It’s the second of these skills that make this game almost unplayable with younger kids – they can do the memory part (in fact, they’re downright scary how good they are at the memory part). But they have great difficulty figuring out the movement – I’d set the minimum age for this one at 7.
I like it… but not enough to hang onto it during the Great Boardgame Purge of 2013.
Dale Yu (~10 ish plays) – I played this with my boys as they were growing up, cutting their teeth on boardgames. It was a nice segue from the HABA games to “real” games, but now that we’re thru that phase, this game quickly left the game collection.
Fraser – I have played this quite a few times with the girls when they were younger. It is quite a good game for children, although there were better or more preferred ones in our house. My biggest recollection was on occasions playing it twice in a row and I had a terrible time in the second game because I was remembering where treasures were in the first game!
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it!
- I like it. Mark J.
- Neutral. Joe H, Fraser
- Not for me… Chris W, Patrick B, Nathan B, Dale Y
I’m fascinated that 3M once had a boardgame division.
I disagrre that it was a wrong choice. It is still sold today, after 30+ years and that is quite telling. Today it would win the childrens game award, but no such award existed back then. I doubt anything else that they could have awarded would have had such an impact on the German market as Sagaland (which is still a fairtly strong seller and a modern classic).
Cant Stop was robbed – but 1980. It would have made a much better title than Focus, which is (imho) a great game, but not really family fair.